Face up to Blackface in Japan

Time to get a bit heavy for a minute.

Japan, there are so many things I love about you, like Taiko and Katsu Curry. But we need to have a little sit down about this one right here.

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This is in response to an upcoming performance on national television by the J-pop groups Momoiro Clover Z, and Rats and Star and who are notorious for performing in blackface.

For the people who understand, especially the thoughtful, conscientious Japanese like my many friends, thank you for your spirit of open-mindedness and cooperation.

For the others…

Please just don’t.

I get that you like cosplay, but I gotta tell ya, I’m really not that interested in your impression of me, because honestly it’s kinda messed up.

Going through the comments on the net I have, to my bafflement, seen many arguments in defense, dare I say in support of Japanese Blackface.  Let me break down what’s problematic about them.

  •  Japanese don’t have the same history, they don’t know any better. 

Bzzt. Not buying it. There is this skill we humans use when we haven’t had an experience, but want to try to understand what it must have been like for someone else.

It’s called empathy.

So this defense is really not a defense at all, because all you’re saying is that the Japanese are so lacking in empathy they can’t tell when they’re doing something incredibly offensive.

Which, incidentally couldn’t be further from the truth. In my years of experience here, it’s become clear to me the Japanese pride themselves on being able to practically mind-read. They’re very good at picking up social cues. There’s even a buzzword for those who can’t: KY, or Kuuki Yomenai. It means someone “can’t read the atmosphere”.

But if the Japanese needed some help walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, they could always think back to how it felt when Chinese actresses played the lead roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, or what if felt like to watch Katy Perry prance around in a half Chinese-half Japanese “kimono” at the AMAs.

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I refuse to believe that, in 2015, all of Japan is so “KY” about blackface,

  • It’s not racist, it’s just offensive. 

Oh, well that’s alright then.

….What?!

  • It’s an homage. They like black people. 

From Merriam-Webster online:

Homage (Noun). “Something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.”

Some homage.

Maybe, just maybe, if the very artists you are homage-ing would be horrified by what you’re doing, it’s not an homage!

What the hell? You don’t get to tell people “this is our homage to you and by God you’re gonna like it.” That’s not how to homage peeps.

Mockery (Noun) “An insincere, contemptible, or impertinent imitation”

That sounds like a much more fitting definition for Japanese blackface. Paying homage to musicians or a people you claim to like, without bothering to acknowledge the dark history of what you’re doing, sounds pretty insincere to me.

  • But you’re wearing a yukata in your profile picture you big old hypocrite.

I am, and I look pretty cute if I do say so myself.  What I didn’t do is my parody of what I think Japanese people are while I was wearing it. By that logic Japanese shouldn’t be wearing t-shirts and jeans.

  • This is Japan. They can do whatever they want.

Oh, absolutely. There’ll just be consequences that’s all. This stubborn mentality is what’s holding Japan back as a world power, in my opinion. This is the same mentality prevalent in the archaic business practices, in the three hour meetings that eat up time and resources, in forcing subordinates to stay at work until their bosses leave, even if that’s not until ten to midnight.  What people don’t realize is that there’s so much more at stake here than just “making the blacks happy.”

If Japan wants to be taken seriously as a world power, hosting the Olympics etc., they need to respect other cultures. If they don’t, the international media will rake them over the coals, just like they did Russia over their treatment of gays. Not necessarily because black lives matter (which they do), but in making Japan look bad, they get to make themselves look good.

Again, I will say there is much to love about Japan. I don’t think all Japanese people are horrible, ignorant dinosaurs. I have a lot of wonderful friends and students who make a great effort to understand me, and give me lots of hope and love for this country. But like in every other country, there are some unscrupulous people who just want to make a buck, regardless of their disrespectful actions, and the damage they’re doing to their country’s reputation.

Foreigners living in Japan shouldn’t be enabling.  Like staging in intervention for an alcoholic friend, if we really have love for this country, we have a responsibility to speak out about things like Japanese blackface.

 

Wishtester Wins a Watty!

Wishtester Wattys Winner

Wishtesters are the lowest of the low, the most pitiful beggars and crooks living on the fringes of society, and Faruq is itching to become one.

Asking a wish of the Djinn, powerful beings who can grant almost anything the heart desires, is a privilege normally reserved for the exceedingly wealthy. But wishtesters may petition the Djinn without spending a single coin.

The price for wishtesters is far greater than simple gold.

 

Say what? My novella Wishtester won an ‘undiscovered gem’ award on Wattpad! If you haven’t yet, go read it and find out why.

Please?

Why nooooot? It’s free!

You can read Wishtester on Wattpad, or right here on my blog.

**Happy Dance**

 

 

I’m in Love with Taiko

** This is a re-post from my old blog. **

Taiko

No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.

One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the traditional music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.

How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.

Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.

What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.

After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my minuscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.

Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.

These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…

Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.

My Feature on InterNations

Internations

Check me out!

logo-old@2xHere’s an interview I did for InterNations, which is a great site that connects expats from around the world.

Here’s my interview, in which I talk about getting ready to move to Japan, my favorite blog post and one of the funniest things to happen to me out here.

Click here to read it!

 

The Beginning of the End: Tokyo T-minus Six Months

keep-calm-it-s-the-final-countdownあけましておめでとうございます!

Happy New Year!

2014 was a successful one for me: I made some big moves in my career, met more amazing people and improved my Japanese the most out of any year I’ve been here. 去年一所懸命歯働いたよ。(Last year I worked super hard!)

However, this year will be bitter sweet, as the countdown to lift off from Japan has been officially initiated.

It’s not because I hate it here. For the most part Tokyo has been good to me. There have been bumps along the way: random police checks, the occasional drunk asshole shouting “gaijin” at me, and hunting for an apartment in a discriminatory marketplace. But the good times far outweigh the bad. Tokyo is a vibrant, lively city that will always have a piece of my heart.

The reasons I’m leaving have more to do with life in general. As I approach my third decade on God’s favorite piece of space debris,  there’s a lot I want to accomplish both personally and professionally.  I don’t feel it will be easy to do those things in Japan.

That said, there’s a lot I need to accomplish in the half year I have left. From soaking up all the Japanese I can to saving money, this year’s gonna be full throttle.

Study-mangaThis year I’m taking on the dreaded kanji–Chinese characters used in the Japanese alphabet. At the absolute least 2000 are needed for literacy. I might be able to easily recognize 300. Still, I bought some manga from the second-hand bookstore down the street. I figure the pictures should help. They must be for kids or something because they have furigana (phonetic spellings) next to the kanji characters.

I’m also going to my first writer’s conference in New York this year. I’m planning to do a pitch session for my latest novel, which I’m currently getting critiqued. Honestly the chances of finding an agent at the con aren’t great, but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.

So while this year will be the end of an era, it’s only so I can usher an new, brighter era full of more success, adventure and growth.

楽しみにする–I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wishtester Chapter 1: Shady Dealings in Shady Alleys

New-Wishtester-Cover-3

Wishtesters are the lowest of the low, the most pitiful beggars and crooks living on the fringes of society, and Faruq is itching to become one.

Asking a wish of the Djinn, powerful beings who can grant almost anything the heart desires, is a privilege normally reserved for the exceedingly wealthy. But wishtesters may petition the Djinn without spending a single coin.

The price for wishtesters is far greater than simple gold.

Click here to read the story on Wattpad too!

~~~~~~~~

Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

A long time ago, in a land lost to history…

Faruq crouched behind an urn almost as tall as he was, the light scent of oranges teasing his nose with every quick breath. He couldn’t let Thamina see him, or he was finished. What kind of luck was this, he thought, that his older sister would be shopping in this area of the market now of all times. She would definitely want to know why he was so far from home, and she would see through any excuse he could come up with.

Wedged between the urn and a table piled with colorful scarves, his face screwed up in discomfort, Faruq could see only dozens of sandaled feet traversing the main market road. When he dared to peek over the urn he had to squint against the midday sun, and the familiar sight of his sister’s pink headscarf was like a beacon. She was bent over examining some fruit. Ahura Mazdaa, he cursed, knowing he couldn’t stay there because even if he turned away, shrewd-eyed Thamina would spot him as she passed his hiding place, and then she would try to force him to go home, not that he would listen. He hated how his sister always bossed him around.

Just as he worked up the courage to dash into the crowd she looked up, as if she could sense his thoughts. Faruq ducked back down. He took a few calming breaths, once more inhaling the fresh orange scent. He listened, but heard only the noise of the market: vendors calling, hagglers haggling, a street performer warbling off in the distance and a ceaseless, murmuring chatter.Faruq

Faruq wiped at the sweat leaking into his eyes from under his turban and slowly eased up until his gaze just barely cleared the lip of the urn. Thamina weaved her way through the throng, coming his way. He gripped the urn, wanting to take off and get lost in the crowd, but he knew that if she saw him he would just have to explain himself once he returned home. He hesitated, chewing on his lower lip and feeling his legs burn from his half-crouch even as she slowly closed in.

But then a gnarled, brown hand reached out and tugged on his sister’s headscarf. She whirled to face her assailant—an old woman. The noise of the market was too loud for Faruq to hear what the woman was saying, but it was clear by the way she gestured, frantic and desperate, that she was trying to sell something. Faruq grinned and bolted out of the little alcove. He chanced one quick look back at his sister, who was politely trying to disengage herself. For a full minute he pushed through the crowd, ignoring the curses and insults until he felt he was deep enough in the crush of bodies to have lost her.

He maneuvered his way to the edge of the horde and took a moment to reorient himself. Dead ahead were the gleaming white towers of the palace. The main roof and secondary towers were topped off with golden bulbs that tapered up to needle-like points. But the main towers, one at each corner, ended in great bulbs of glass, and the King kept his Djinn enclosed, each to a tower, like giant fireflies. Far above, even in the bright light of day, their flames dotted the sky in red, gold, silver and blue. When he awoke that morning, Faruq’s aim was to end the day tucked into a soft bed within a splendid manor, but as he squinted up at the towers the foolish boy dared hope that if all went smoothly, he would find himself living in a palace of his very own.

Since the palace was to the north Faruq used it to navigate, as everyone knew the wish scribe’s boys congregated in the gray district to the northeast. Old Ayman said they hung around a squat house with a blue door. Ah, Old Ayman. Faruq felt jealousy all mixed up with excitement whenever he thought about the elderly beggar—well, former beggar. Quick as an arrow, the vagrant had become a rich man, and now he lived in a big house right by the water with servants, many camels and goats, and he had just married his second wife.

It took close to another hour of besting the crowds, heat and noise of the market before he finally stumbled on the corridor he was searching for. It was practically deserted compared to the sea of bodies he’d been swimming. Shadows from tattered awnings stretched like lazy black cats across sand-colored buildings, one of which housed a blue door with peeling paint. A group of scrawny young men squatted on and around the cracked and broken steps in front passing the long nozzle of a water pipe. Faruq hung back, pressing up against a wall. He watched how the youths accosted the few people who hurried through the narrow street.

What’s your hurry? Test a wish and you could live forever—have all the time in the world!

A thin, weaselly man in a beige robe and turban slipped out of a shuttered building across the alley. He looked deliberately ahead while striding past the wish scribe’s boys, but one young man who leaned casually against the wall suddenly reached out snatched the weaselly man’s sleeve.

“My friend! Just one wish could change your whole life. No more shady dealings in shady alleys. Conduct your unsavory business under the shade of the palm trees in your courtyard, like all rich men.”

The man shook the youth off and scurried away, chased by the group’s raucous, mocking laughter. And then they spotted Faruq.

“You there! Little brother.” The young man on the wall gestured for Faruq to come closer. “Don’t be afraid, come, come!

Faruq pushed out his chest and marched over. “Who says I’m afraid?”

The others ignored him, but the one who’d called him over clapped a hand down on Faruq’s bony shoulder, and with his other hand he snatched the proffered nozzle, took a long, gurgling pull then sent smoke curling out of his nostrils to replace the thin line of hair above his upper lip.

“I am Abdul-Aziz,” he said. “So, what will it be for you today, little brother? Immeasurable wealth? The heart of the prettiest girl in town? Or maybe you’d like to add a few inches to your…” He took another drag of the pipe “…height,” he concluded while smoke once more spewed from his nose. He patted Faruq on the head. The boy ducked and huffed in annoyance.

“I want to become a wishtester,” he announced, quite unnecessarily. The rest of the boys ceased their chatter and looked at him with eyes that seemed to gleam white in the dimness of the alley. They grinned like jackals.

“Wonderful!” said Abdul-Aziz. “Right, let us go to see the wish scribes, eh?”

Faruq nodded and grinned, pleased that everything was going as planned. “Are you all wishtesters too?”

The young men glanced at each other, and burst into laughter.

“Not us,” said Abdul-Aziz. “All day we lounge and smoke tobacco, with not a care in the world. We have no need of wishes. But you, little brother, the wish scribes will have something spectacular for you, I’m sure of it. Come! The sooner you get your wish, the sooner you’ll be drowning in riches.” He put a hand to his heart. “I just hope you won’t forget your friend and loyal servant, Abdul-Aziz.” He grabbed Faruq by the shoulders and steered him toward the mouth of the alley.

Wishtester Chapter 2: Slow Down, Stupid Boy

New-Wishtester-Cover-3

Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

They soon reached the walkway that led through the outer courtyard to the palace. Green palm trees lined its length, their leaves drooping but vibrant. Never in his young life had Faruq been this close to the seat of the King, and his heart thudded as he set foot on the marble path. It felt almost sacrilegious to walk on the pristine walkway, but sacrilege or not he had to hurry to keep up with Abdul-Aziz.

Once more Faruq squinted up at the towers, but even this close all he could see were colored flames licking and snapping inside the glass. Abdul-Aziz led him past white fountains that gushed sparkling water up at the sky, past rich men and women who whizzed by in blurs of silk and color and perfume, and past dark-bearded guardsmen whose scowls could be seen in their eyes. But not one of those daunting men impeded their journey. Faruq could hardly believe it.

At last they approached a tall archway carved into the white stone of the palace’s outer wall, and grim guardsmen stood on each side, one light as sand, one dark as soil, the machetes that hung from their hips gleaming and their faces alert and hostile as the boys approached. Faruq gaped up at them, sure that his trek had come to an end. And yet when Abdul-Aziz took off his cap and nodded to the men, they inclined their heads back, albeit shallowly, in greeting.

“Another one for the wish scribes,” said Abdul-Aziz, gesturing to Faruq. Both narrowed their eyes at Abdul-Aziz, but the dark-skinned man, who Faruq now saw wasn’t much older than him, harumphed and pulled away from the wall.

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice gruff. Faruq started after him but stopped and turned back when Abdul-Aziz stayed where he was.

“Come on!” barked the guardsman, just as Abdul-Aziz smiled and waved. Faruq scurried after the first guardsman while the other grabbed Abdul-Aziz by the scruff of his shirt and pushed him back the way they’d come.

Alright your business is done here. Get out of my sight.

Faruq’s guardsman took him through the palace’s inner courtyard. If the outer courtyard was lavish, the inner courtyard had it beat twice over. The sounds of the outside world fell away to soft conversation, melodic drums and the soft twang of an oud, but no matter how Faruq looked around, he couldn’t find any musicians. He reasoned that they must be hidden away behind one of the silk-curtained tents that lined the perimeter of the courtyard, spaced out between the palm trees.

The-palace

They traversed a flat, marble bridge over a pool of blue-green water so still Faruq saw his own astonished reflection, as if looking into a mirror, until one of the lilies dotting the water floated by and obscured his face, its aroma light. Such beauty. Such luxury! And they had yet to enter the palace. Women garbed in sheer silk like dancers flitted from tent to tent with golden trays of tantalizing fruit. As they cleared the bridge a woman crossed their path, scenting the air with jasmine and cherries. She gave him a tight smile. Faruq smiled back and reached for a bunch of grapes, but she shook her head, yanked the tray out of his reach, and hurried on to the next tent.

A silk curtain fluttered back, and a man in fine robes of light blue embroidered in gold emerged from one of the gazebos, followed by a boy in a plain white robe waving a palm leaf. The nearby serving women bowed to him, while the boy hurried to keep up with the man’s long strides. As the rich man passed Faruq, his dark eyes scanned up and down, appraising, then narrowed under the shadow of his turban. Faruq lowered his gaze to the white tile of the courtyard.

He almost bumped right into the guardsman’s back when they finally came to a small door, dark and hidden among the pillars and bulbous arches that made up the inner courtyard’s wall. An exchange of nods between his escort and the man at the door and they were let inside. Beyond was a stifling, windowless hallway lit only by white light glowing in brackets along the wall. Faruq reached out to touch one of the lights. His hand passed right through the bluish-white orb and he felt no heat. The guardsman suddenly turned around and glared at him.

“You’re a stupid boy,” he said.

Faruq blinked. “What?”

“Do you usually go around touching things you have no idea about? I saw your shadow.” He waved at one of the orbs. “This is sorcerer’s fire. How did you know it wouldn’t immediately incinerate your hand on contact?”

“I…I…”

“How old are you?”

“…I’m thirteen.”

The guardsman scoffed and shook his head before continuing on. Faruq decided not to touch anything else.

The hallway ended in a thick, arched door, tall and split down the middle. All around it a tiled mosaic flashed blue, red, gold and silver in the light of the sorcerer’s fire. The guardsman grabbed a brass ring and gave three fast raps and then four slow ones that echoed in the silence left behind. When at last the door opened a man swathed in white with a crimson turban took up the doorway.

A wish scribe.

His lips pulled back in a knowing smile under his thin, black mustache. “What timing,” he said in a voice like wind caught in a narrow corridor. “I have just the wish for you, my young friend. Can you read?”

“Yes I can,” said Faruq boldly, but a small bolt of panic darted through his gut. His father’s closest friend was a scholar, and had spent many an evening teaching Faruq and his elder sister their letters, but Faruq had always struggled, provoking the man’s temper. Ahura Mazdaa Faruq, my donkey can read this he would say, or he would lament while looking up at the ceiling: Not even the sense of a camel. Still, Faruq would say whatever it took to get his wish.

“Good, that makes things much easier,” said the wish scribe. “Wait here.”

The man ducked back inside in a swirl of white robes, and returned with a small roll of paper.

“Is that my wish?” asked Faruq, making no attempt to mask his excitement. The wish scribe turned up his nose and gazed down at him from hooded eyes.

“It is a wish, for a cousin of the King who has paid more than what a hundred of you is worth for the privilege of our services. And you are not to see it until we near the Djinni. Now come, let us be on our way.”

Faruq should have been surprised, alarmed even, at how quickly everything progressed. After all, there was the rumor of the poor widow with the three young children. The story went that she’d been given the phrase, “I wish to be free of my worries.” She came home to find her three children dead, and she killed herself shortly after.

But that was just a story, whereas Faruq had seen old Ayman with his own eyes. Whenever, like stinging insect bites, his doubts and worries about the notorious deceit of the Djinn invaded, he thought of the smug, triumphant look on old Ayman’s face when he’d returned to Southmarket to gloat, his belly bloated under his silk robes and his fat fingers glittering with rings. If that old fool’s tested wish could turn out to be such a success, so could his.

The wish scribe led the way back through the hallway, and the guardsman brought up the rear. They entered the palace proper, climbing what seemed to be dozens of flights of steps, though Faruq was too dazzled by the spectacle of the palace to keep count.

They walked through smooth, stone archways and along terraces shaded by palms and silk drapes in purple and gold and red. Through a room with jade statues and art on the walls. Through large chambers full of nothing but sunbeams that spilled in through bell-shaped windows. And dark-bearded guards stood sentinel in every room while cream-robed servants bustled by.

When they passed through a hall with windows that opened onto a menagerie, Faruq’s excitement took on a life of its own, devouring what little sense remained in his head. He saw rare animals like elephants and tigers, and others from distant lands that he couldn’t name.

But he could only catch a fleeting glimpse, for as they walked the wish scribe occasionally gestured to one of the guards, and soon Faruq was surrounded, with two men behind him and two in front. Whenever he tried to stop or slow he received a rough shove. Nevertheless, he foolishly hoped that maybe the wish would be to become a King, and then he would have a menagerie all his own.

After a time, they reached the entrance to a tower, and the wondrous sights of the palace gave way to a curving staircase within a shadowy column of white stone. More guards stood by, spaced out every twenty steps or so. Unlit brackets were set at intervals, and the only light came from many tiny windows. As they got higher Faruq stretched his neck to peer out at the view of the city below, but the wish scribe moved briskly, and Faruq had to keep up or risk another shove. He sighed. He would just have to wait until they exited the tower.

But when at last they emerged, the sight before him wiped out all thoughts of a bird’s-eye view. He completely forgot to look around, riveted by the creature towering above him.